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Less than an hour after Juraci Santos was unceremoniously dumped into the back seat of her kidnappers’ getaway car, Luca Vaz crept through her front gate and poisoned her bougainvilleas.
The way he figured it, he didn’t have a choice. And it wasn’t his fault. It was the fault of that lying lowlife, Mateo
“You’re sure about the color of these bougainvilleas?”
Juraci had asked when he was planting them.
“I’m sure, Senhora,” he’d assured her. “Blood red, like you told me.”
“All right, Luca. But you’d better be right. Because, if they flower in any other color. . . .”
She left the threat unspecified. But a threat it was—and he knew it.
Three weeks later, the roof fell in: Luca learned that those new plants of hers were about to flower in a color his wife,
Amanda, had described as the palest purple I’ve ever seen on a bougainvillea. If Juraci Santos, a woman known to be as vindictive as she was distrustful, discovered the truth, he’d be in big trouble.
Luca’s advance notice of the situation stemmed from the fact that he’d swiped one of the cuttings and planted it to the right of his front door. Unlike the bougainvilleas along
Juraci’s wall, it had been standing in strong sunshine for the last three weeks and Amanda, with her sharp eyes, had spotted the first little bud. She’d taken him by the arm, led him over to the plant and pointed.
“Isn’t this bougainvillea supposed to be red?”
“It’s not red?” he asked with a sense of foreboding.
He wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t told him. Luca wasn’t just color blind; he suffered from the most severe and rarest form of the malady: achromatopsia. He saw the world in black, white and shades of gray.
Six people in the world, and only six, knew about his condition.
Unfortunately, one of them was Amanda’s no-good brother, Mateo, who owned a flower and shrub business, and whom Luca blamed for his current troubles.
The truth of the matter was that Mateo Lima was a nasty son of a bitch, and there weren’t many people in Carapicuiba,
or the surrounding communities either, who were willing to buy flowers and shrubs from the likes of him.
Nor were there many people willing to hire a guy who was color blind to care for their flowers.
So there they were, Luca and Mateo, stuck with each other.
The survival of Mateo’s flower and shrub nursery depended upon Luca’s work as a gardener. And Luca’s continued employment depended on Mateo keeping his mouth shut about Luca’s condition, which Mateo, the blackmailing bastard, had made clear he’d do only if he became Luca’s exclusive supplier.
It was remotely possible, of course, that Mateo had made an honest mistake about those supposedly blood-red bougainvilleas.
But Luca didn’t think so. The most likely possibility was that Mateo was trying to pull a fast one because he had no blood-red bougainvilleas in stock.
The other possibility was that Mateo had been having a joke at Luca’s expense. He found color blindness funny.
Either way, Mateo had underestimated the consequences for both of them. If Juraci saw those bougainvilleas flowering in pale purple, she’d have a fit. And then she’d shoot her mouth off to all of her neighbors. Luca would wind up losing his customers; Mateo would be stuck with his flowers and shrubs, and both of them would soon be scratching to make a living. That was why the bougainvilleas had to go before they brought flowers into the world.
Killing bougainvilleas, as any gardener will tell you, is a tough proposition. The normal technique is to dig them out by the roots. Luca would have to be subtler than that. He’d have to make it appear they’d fallen victims to some mysterious blight.
After giving the problem some thought, he decided on his instrument of death: herbicide coupled with industrialstrength bleach. He mixed up the concoction in a four-liter jug, set his alarm clock for quarter to five in the morning, and by five-thirty on the day of the kidnapping he was creeping through Juraci’s gate. He missed encountering her abductors by about fifty-five minutes, a fact that undoubtedly saved his life.
He, like the kidnappers, had chosen his time with care.
One of her maids had mentioned that Juraci was a night owl,
and that she seldom retired before two or three in the morning.
But Luca always smelled freshly-brewed coffee when he arrived, which was usually around 7:00, sometimes as early as 6:45. That led him to believe that the maids were up and about by 6:30 at the latest.
His plan was a simple one, and he was convinced he’d be able to pull it off without a hitch. The only imponderable was that yappy little poodle of Juraci’s, the one she called Twiggy.
He prayed the dog would keep her mouth shut, because if the little bitch didn’t, she might wake up the big bitch, her mistress, and then Luca’s fat would be in the fire.
He’d brought a flashlight, but, as it turned out, he didn’t need it. The moonlight was bright enough to work by. With gloved and practiced fingers, Luca dug down to expose the roots of each plant, severed them with his grafting knife,
poured in a healthy dose of the poisonous liquid and packed the earth back into place. With any kind of luck at all, the heat of the sun would cause the sap to rise, thereby drawing the poison upward into the twigs and leaves.
At quarter past six, after a celebratory cigarette, Luca began his normal workday. He went, first, to the shed at the foot of the garden. From there, he took a plastic trash bag and started working his way up the slope toward the house.
Juraci’s slovenly guests were in the habit of leaving paper cups, paper plates, and gnawed-upon bones scattered about the lawn after every barbecue—and she gave a lot of barbecues.
It was one of his tasks to gather them up.
6:30 passed, then 6:40 without a single sign of life from the house; no yappy little Twiggy running around the garden pissing on the plants; no smell of coffee.
At 6:45, curiosity and a craving for a café com leite getting the better of him, Luca decided to investigate. Up to that point, he hadn’t been alarmed. But when he rounded the corner and caught sight of the kitchen, he stopped dead in his tracks.
The door had been smashed—not just forced open, but completely destroyed. Pieces of solid, varnished wood were everywhere, a few of them still hanging from the hinges.
Burglars, he thought. And then: Already gone . . . or maybe not. He started moving again, more cautiously this time. A
rat in the kitchen reacted to the sound of his footsteps by scuttling out of the door to take refuge under a nearby hedge.
Luca had no fear of rats. He’d killed dozens in his time.
He quickened his pace. From somewhere beyond the dim opening, he could hear the buzzing of flies. When he reached the doorway, he stopped again, letting his eyes adjust to the light, getting his first glimpse of the situation inside.
The flies, hundreds of them, had been attracted by a pool of liquid on the white tile floor. They were over it, around it,
some were even in it, trapped, as if they’d landed on flypaper.
A few survivors waved their wings, making futile efforts to escape.
Luca, at first, saw the liquid as dark grey. But then, he caught a whiff of the steely smell, saw the two corpses from which it oozed to form a single pool, and realized it must be red.
The downpour menacing Brasilia for the past hour was finally making good on its threat. Raindrops splashed on the Director’s window panes. Mario Silva suppressed a sigh.
He’d left his umbrella at home. He’d get soaked on the way to the airport.
“Let me have a closer look at that,” Nelson Sampaio said.
He leaned over his desk to snatch the photo from his chief inspector’s hand. Then he put on his gold-rimmed reading glasses and squinted at the headline.
Artist’s Mother Abducted.
He could have read it without the glasses. The typeface was that big.
In the photograph, Juraci Santos looked terrified. Her face was dirty, her hair unkempt; her upper body, as much of it as could be seen in the shot, was clad in a dark green sweatshirt several sizes too small. She had been photographed holding up a late edition of that morning’s Cidado de São Paulo.
Sampaio tossed the photo onto a pile of newspapers, all with headlines echoing the one he’d been squinting at.
“Proof of life, my ass,” he said. “These days they can fake anything. Why diamonds?”
“Cash is too bulky,” Silva said. “A bank transfer could be traced. Diamonds have universal value. It’s a good choice.”
Sampaio took off his glasses and rubbed the indentations on the bridge of his nose. “How did those damned radio people get the news before we did?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s Arnaldo Nunes?”
“In São Paulo, visiting family.”
“Good! Saves us a plane ticket.” Sampaio, when he wasn’t flattering a superior, or planning the overthrow of an enemy,
kept a sharp eye on expenses. “Pry him loose from his bloody family. I need every available man, I need results fast. Timing is critical.”
For once, Sampaio was right. Timing was critical.
The felons who’d snatched the Artist’s mother could hardly have picked a worse time to do it.
The beginning of the FIFA World Cup was thirteen days away. The nation, as it did every four years, had gone football crazy. And, in the upcoming conflict, no player was more crucial to Brazil’s success than the Artist.
What Beethoven was to music, Rembrandt to painting,
Tico “The Artist” Santos was to the art of futebol. He was the new Pelé. Some alleged he was better than Pelé. With Tico in form, his team was expected to go on to glory. With Tico depressed and worried about the fate of his mother, Brazil ran a grave risk of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the country’s most bitter rival—Argentina.
Even that wasn’t the worst of it. Brazil, the only country to have won the Cup five times, was hosting the series for the first time in more than sixty years.
Every important government official, from the President of the Republic on down, had acquired tickets to the games.
And every one of them had been looking forward to the grand finale, where they’d rub elbows, mid-field, in the great stadium of Maracanã, and watch Brazil crush the opposition.
Opposition that would, according to the bookmakers in
London, most likely be wearing the blue and white of the
Argentinean national team.
But now, the great elbow-rubbing fest had been thrown into jeopardy. A serious risk had arisen that Argentina might rub dirt into Brazilian faces. And, indignity of indignities,
that dirt might be Brazilian dirt.
The task of finding the Artist’s mother had fallen to the
Brazilian Federal Police. If Juraci Santos wasn’t quickly—and safely—returned, there was no one more likely to be targeted by the witch hunt that would surely follow than the Director in charge of that organization.
“The Argentineans have a club in São Paulo,” he said, biting one of his nails. “That’s as good a place as any to start.”
Silva eyed him warily. “Start what?”
“Interviewing Argentineans, of course. It’s a question of cui bono. If Tico can’t do his stuff, who benefits? The
Argentineans! That could be it right there! That could be the motive.”
Wariness crystallized into disbelief, but Silva was careful to keep his voice neutral.
“You think a cabal of Argentineans snatched the Artist’s mother?”
“Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“Honestly, Director, I don’t think—”
“Call Nunes. I don’t want him sitting around on his ass waiting for you to get there. I want him over at that
Argentinean club questioning suspects. Tell him that.”
Silva suppressed a sigh. “I’ll tell him, Director.”
Sampaio stabbed the photo with a forefinger. “Did this come by email?”
“We can trace emails, can’t we?”
“Not in this case.”
“Why the hell not?”
“They used a free, web-based account and logged in through an unsecured wireless link.”
“Whatever the fuck that means.” Sampaio’s language tended to get saltier when he was under pressure. “Have you booked your flight?”
Silva nodded and looked at his watch. “It leaves in fifty-five minutes.”
“Get a move on then.” Sampaio took another bite of nail.
“We’ll continue this conversation when I get there.”
Silva raised an eyebrow. “You’re coming to São Paulo?”
“Are you hard of hearing, Chief Inspector?”
The Director loved to throw his weight around.
Unfortunately for his subordinates, he generally threw it in the wrong direction. Allowing him to go to São Paulo would hinder, not help, the investigation. Silva acted immediately to defuse the threat.
“I’m sure Minister Pontes will be pleased with your personal involvement,” he said.
Antonio Pontes, the Minister of Justice, was the government’s
For a while, Sampaio didn’t reply.
Silva knew what he was up to. He was turning it over in his head: Go to São Paulo and assume all responsibility, or stay in Brasilia and blame Mario Silva and his team in case of failure?
For Sampaio, a political appointee and a political animal,
it really wasn’t much of a choice. He did exactly what Silva expected him to do.
“Damn,” he said, “I forgot about the corruption hearings.
I’ll have to stay here. I could be called upon to testify.”
There was not the least chance of Sampaio being called upon to testify. The congressional corruption hearings were dead in the water. The politicians charged with conducting them were stonewalling, some to protect their buddies, some to protect themselves.
But Silva nodded, as if what the Director said made perfect sense.
“Mind you,” Sampaio added, “You’ll be calling me with updates at least twice a day.”
“Of course,” Silva said.
He had no intention of doing any such thing.